clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2022 NFC East preview: Dallas Cowboys appear to have regressed from last season

It’s hard to see where the Cowboys have gotten better

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East in 2021 with a 12-5 record before losing at home to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round. Dallas had an unfavorable cap situation heading into the 2022 offseason.

After bestowing a six-year, $90-million contract to running back Ezekiel Elliott, and squeezing contracts to quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, Dallas found themselves in a tight, precarious, situation.

Cooper signed a five-year, $100 million contract with Dallas in March of 2020 but was traded after the 2021 season for a fifth-round pick and a swap of 2022 sixth-rounders. Cooper - a 28 -year-old talent in his prime - was dealt for pennies on the dollar relative to the current wide receiver market.

After another disappointing loss to conclude a season, Dallas had to decide on several key contributors. Jerry Jones and company resigned edge DeMarcus Lawrence to a new deal, applied the franchise tag to tight end Dalton Schultz, and resigned the versatile wide receiver, Michael Gallup. They also retained talents like safety Malik Hooker, safety Jayron Kearse, wide receiver Noah Brown, edge Dorance Armstrong Jr., tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, and defensive lineman Carlos Watkins. After declining linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, they resigned him to a cheap deal.

A big win for Dallas was the retention of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who was heavily sought after for head coaching positions. The longevity of Mike McCarthy as the head coach is unsettled, and speculation links Quinn as a possible successor due to the brilliant job he did with the 2021 Cowboys’ defense.

Dallas will look to repeat as division champions - something that hasn’t happened in the NFC East since the Philadelphia Eagles won the division four years in a row from 2001-2004. However, the losses of Cooper, Collins, Williams, and even Cedrick Wilson will affect the offense, and losing Randy Gregory (in bizarre fashion, mind you) to Denver will hurt the defense.

Key additions: James Washington, Dante Fowler Jr.

Drafted players: Tyler Smith, Sam Williams, Jalen Tolbert, Jake Ferguson, Matt Waletzko, DaRon Bland, Damone Clark, John Ridgeway, Devin Harper

Key losses: Amari Cooper, Randy Gregory, La’el Collins, Connor Williams, Cedrick Wilson, Keanu Neal, Blake Jarwin, Greg Zuerlein

2022 outlook

Offense

Dallas’ offense was explosive during the 2021 season; they finished second in yards per game (401.4 YPG) and first in points per game (30.4 PPG). The Cowboys scored more than 40 points three times and more than 50 points twice, including a 56-point affair the day after Christmas against Washington.

A year after his devastating knee injury, Dak Prescott had a solid season. He threw for 4,449 yards with 37 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. It was his best year to date. He’ll look to improve - with fewer weapons - in his fourth season operating within Kellen Moore’s system.

Ezekiel Elliott, 26, just cracked 1,000 yards last season. He had 1,002 yards (4.2 YPC) with 10 touchdowns and 47 catches for 287 yards with two scores. Sounds fine, right? Well, the issue with Elliott is backup running back Tony Pollard is more explosive and efficient. Pollard averaged 5.5 yards per carry with 719 yards and two rushing touchdowns to go along with 39 catches for 337 yards.

There is a noticeable difference with the juice and spark Pollard provides the offense. In Elliott’s defense, he was playing through a knee injury last season. Pollard is only one year younger than Elliott, but the perception - and wear/tear - of the two players suggests otherwise.

Dallas was mostly an 11 and 12 personnel team last season. According to Sharp Football Statistics, they aligned in 11 personnel 67 percent of the time and 12 personnel 24 percent of the time. The departures of Cooper, Wilson, and even tight end Blake Jarwin may cap the upside of the offense, but the Cowboys addressed the position groups by adding wide receiver Jalen Tolbert and tight end Jake Ferguson through the draft. They also signed wide receiver James Washington in free agency.

Retaining Gallup was an interesting move. Before last season, many people speculated that Gallup would leave Dallas, but the Cowboys shipped Cooper out of town and signed the WR, who is currently rehabbing an ACL injury that he suffered in the Cowboys’ 25-22 Week 17 defeat against Arizona. Gallup’s been dinged up throughout his career, but a five-year, $62.5 million contract is cheaper than the Cooper investment.

CeeDee Lamb will look for an even bigger target share in the offense with Gallup returning from an injury and no more Cooper. Lamb had a 20.4 percent target share last season, which ranked 36th in the league. He caught 79 of his 120 for 1,102 yards with six touchdowns. Lamb is still just 23 years old.

Schultz has proven to be a crucial part of the offense. He is adequate as a blocker but provides very soft hands over the middle of the field. The 12 personnel package will likely involve Wisconsin TE Jake Ferguson, albeit Sprinkle or Sean McKeon will get their run.

Dallas’ offensive line was their identity and strength dating back to the latter Tony Romo years. The combination of Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Tyron Smith haunts the other three NFC East teams. While Martin is still playing at a high level, there’s a drop-off with Smith, and Frederick has since retired.

Terrance Steele wasn’t a liability for Dallas last season at tackle when asked to play last season, so he earned the starting job right tackle spot heading into 2022. Tyler Biadasz played adequately at center and will look to develop, but the big question mark is the left guard spot currently manned by Tulsa OT Tyler Smith.

Tyler Smith was dominant at a lower level of competition solely because he was more physical and stronger than most of his opponents. He needs a lot of refinement on the technical side of playing offensive line, and it’s not certain if he will be able to make a smooth transition to the NFL, let alone to playing guard.

Luckily, we know Smith was a top 16 player on Dallas’ board thanks to the one and only Jerry Jones, who showed Dallas’ draft board to the media. Who was number one and two on this list, one may ask...Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal.

Defense

Dan Quinn revitalized a Dallas defense that was atrociously bad during the 2020 season. Quinn, who is typically associated with the Cover-3 Seattle Seahawks scheme, used a lot of man coverage in a versatile defensive system that was opportunistic.

Dallas’ defense led the league in Cover-1 percentage. Dallas led the league with 34 takeaways and 26 total interceptions, thanks partly to second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs, who had 11 interceptions last season.

Diggs is a good young cornerback but plays with a very aggressive style that leads to interceptions but can also lead to mistakes. Diggs’s development and production assisted in Quinn’s defensive success, but the biggest contributor was rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.

Calling the 12th overall pick in the draft a linebacker vastly undersells what he provides a defense. The 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year earned a First-Team All-Pro honor after recording 70 pressures, 58 STOPS, and 13 sack campaign. Parsons was a huge success in year one and should be a thorn in the side of the rest of the NFC East for years to come.

The combination of Parsons, Diggs, and Quinn helped turn the defense around. In 2020, Dallas finished 28th in the league in points allowed (29.6 PPG) to 8th in the league (21.2 PPG). After allowing 158 yards on the ground a game in 2020, their run fits were solidified and only allowed 115.9 yards per game.

Safety Jayron Kearse reinvigorated his career with Quinn in 2021. The safety played 1,073 snaps as a tight end eraser. Dallas resigned Kearse to a two-year, $10-million deal - one quietly very important resigning to Quinn’s defense.

Retaining Malik Hooker is also a wise move by Dallas. Hooker is a true center-fielder who is only 26 years old. His career has been plagued by injury; if Quinn wants to continue running Cover-1, he could do much worse than having Hooker on the backend.

One issue the Cowboys will have to overcome is the loss of Randy Gregory. The former Cowboy had 47 pressures and six sacks last season, playing opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. The defensive line is weaker without Gregory; it consists of a lot of young and unproven talent, but the hope for Dallas is Fowler Jr., will produce similar numbers to Gregory.

Sam Williams - a violent explosive edge rusher out of Ole Miss - will also have an opportunity to earn snaps. Williams, Fowler Jr., Tarell Basham, Dorence Armstrong, and Chauncey Golston will be in a rotation behind Lawrence, who will command snaps.

The defensive line is also very young, with 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill and Carlos Watkins as the elders. Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, rookie John Ridgeway, and Quinton Bohanna are a solid overall group with no true difference-maker.

Next to Parsons, Vander Esch returns, and Jabril Cox, a rookie fourth-round pick from last season, seems on track to return after he tore his ACL last year. Another former LSU Tiger LB - Damone Clark - will likely miss the entire season, but that was known when Dallas selected him in the 5th round.

The overall secondary is adequate with an ability to play man coverage. Besides Diggs, Jourdan Lewis is a good NFL nickelback. Anthony Brown is a replacement-level starter, but Dallas spent a 2021 second-round pick on a raw cornerback out of Kentucky named Kelvin Joseph. I am unclear as to the development of Joseph, but the potential was there while at Kentucky.

I’m curious to see if Quinn can take this defense to another level. The jump from 2020 to 2021 was extensive; imagining that it could improve with Diggs and Parsons one more year experienced is plausible, but development isn’t always linear in the National Football League.

Final thoughts

The Cowboys are a worse team today than they were at the end of the 2021 season. I love some of Dallas’ young assets, especially on the defensive side of the football. I appreciate Quinn as a leader, but the offensive line, receiving corps, and possibly the pass rush are worse off than last year.

Dallas will open their season against Tampa Bay for the second year in a row. Then they play the defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals before hosting the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. If Dallas goes 0-2 and then LOSES to the Giants in primetime, a move on Mike McCarthy’s job could ensue, creating more turmoil and distractions around a franchise that tends to be embroiled with such things.

Regardless of the start, many situations need to break favorably for the Dallas Cowboys to do better than 12-5. They still have a realistic shot at winning the NFC East, although it’s no guarantee.